What is Emotional Eating?

Here are some common ways that emotional eating shows up in people’s lives. Maybe you will see yourself in some of these examples:

  • Automatically getting up to eat in the middle of the night
  • Not being able to stop yourself from eating, even when you are already full
  • Eating for no apparent reason (such as from boredom or stress)
  • Eating portions of food that are too large
  • Craving unhealthy foods because of sugar, fat, grease, etc.
  • Feeling guilty about leaving food on the plate so you eat it anyway
  • Having uncontrollable urges to eat and overeating to the point of gorging yourself
  • Feelings of guilt, self-loathing, disgust, being upset with yourself for having eaten the food that you ate because of food choice, portion, etc.
  • Eating so that you fit in with social expectations and feeling unable to say no or have a good boundary

This is not a comprehensive list nor is it personalized to you. I am sure that, as you read it, you might relate to some of them, or you might become more aware of your own personal habits. 

Each person is unique and has his or her own relationship with food. 

Increase Your Awareness

You cannot solve a problem when you do not know what it is.

Most of the time, when I work with clients on emotional eating habits, they already feel very overwhelmed by the problem and do not know where to begin.

Here are two ideas that you can use and adapt to help you raise your awareness of your habits:

1) Spy on yourself

Pick one thing that you can handle examining in a short term, very immediate way. 

Maybe it’s breakfast, or a snack time, or a situation such as being on the phone (a time when people mindlessly multitask). 

Perhaps it’s a time of day, a time at work, a meeting where there are always donuts…..

Maybe it’s at night, when you’re eating after dinner, and you don’t know why you’re eating…

Keep a notepad or type notes into your smart phone. Just raise your awareness of what you are thinking and feeling. Ask yourself, “What do I feel?” 

Do not judge your thoughts and emotions. Simply become aware of them. Once you become aware of them, you can find out what need you are trying to fill with food. 

2) Physical Environment Changes

Making changes in your physical environment will help raise your awareness about your present experience.

Have you ever driven someone else’s car? You notice right away that you might have to adjust the seat, the mirrors, and you reach for the gear shift in the wrong place! 

The same thing happens when you change food-related visual and situation cues:

  • Change your plate size (eat off a smaller plate, or a really huge plate) You’ll either notice how limited you are in your food portions, or how absurdly large your portions would have to be to full the giant serving platter. It will make you question the amount of food you put on your plate.
  • Sit in a different chair! When you sit in a different place at the table, you will notice how you see the room differently. The view won’t be the same. In fact, bring a completely different chair to the table (maybe with your small or giant plate, too). Can you imagine sitting on a folding chair or a step stool while you eat? That would change things a lot. It will interrupt the silent mental map that you have of “eating” and you will be able to leave the autopilot mode and be more mindful of your eating. 

Take these ideas and make them your own. Just start raising your awareness of your eating patterns so that you can start to understand yourself better. Once you become aware of a problem, take note of your thoughts, feelings, and needs. 

Once you know what you need, meet that need authentically. The only need that food actually meets is to refuel the body. 

Keep reading the blog for more ideas about awareness and interventions that you will be able to use to stop emotional eating.

Thanks for reading!


by Diana Zilly, MS, MA, LCPC. Diana is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and Educator, and former Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Joliet Junior College.

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